Schools in the Virginia High School League will undergo one of the most radical realignments in the VHSL's century-old history this fall. The premise was to group high schools by enrollment size for postseason play.
It also means district tournaments and trophies, and all-district teams are done. The Eastern Region (postseason home of the Peninsula District) and Region I (postseason home of the Bay Rivers District) no longer exist.
In their place are groups of like-sized schools called conferences, which exist as the first level of post-season playoffs. The VHSL ranks schools by enrollment, then splits them into roughly equal sixths.
The largest schools are in Group 6A, the smallest in Group 1A, and unlike the past where schools could opt to play in a higher classification, they now must compete for postseason honors in the group their enrollment dictates.
So from the Peninsula District, Bethel, Woodside and Kecoughtan are in Group 6A; Gloucester, Hampton, Menchville and Warwick are 5A; and Denbigh, Heritage and Phoebus are 4A.
From the Bay Rivers District, Grafton, Jamestown, Smithfield and Tabb are 4A Lafayette, New Kent, Poquoson, Warhill and York are 3A; and Bruton is in Class 2A.
The result of the realignment meant athletic directors had to work quickly to figure out scheduling and travel challenges and budgets in a matter of months.
It is complicated. So Daily Press reporters Lynn Burke, Dave Johnson and Marty O'Brien sat down with five ADs representing Peninsula and Bay Rivers district schools to discuss how the realignment came to pass and what they needed to do to make it work in time for the school year.
Gathered in a Daily Press conference room for nearly 90 minutes, we talked to Lafayette's Dan Barner, Poquoson's Ken Bennett, Kecoughtan's Lee Martin, Heritage's Dwayne Peters and Woodside's Todd Price.
Below are the results of the conversation, edited for length and organized by subject.
Daily Press: Show of hands. How many of you would've liked to keep districts and had seeding into the regionals without this new beast called "conferences."
All five athletic directors indicated they would've liked to keep districts and district tournaments (which no longer exist) and eliminate conferences. The realignment means teams will have to travel farther to play.
Price: Just think of the rivalries were going to lose. District tournaments, I mean we'd sell out. The Kecoughtan-Hampton, the game going into the tournament, was the most we had for the entire tournament. And now, we're not even going to have that. Kecoughtan and Hampton are never going meet in the playoffs or district tournament. That whole thing is going. You're going to lose revenue and you're going to lose rivalries. Hopefully you can generate some new rivalries but who knows if that's going to happen with the distances traveled.
DP: Is realignment and having schools of strictly similar sizes play each other in state tournaments a good thing?
Barner: Yeah, I think it's a good thing, but I think it was that way before, except for schools like Phoebus and Bruton that choose to play up. That was their choice. It was (similar) schools before.
Peters: I agree. I think it was pretty well set. It's like the old saying goes, "If it's not broke, why try to fix it?" They could've tweaked and made little adjustments here and there, but I didn't see anything wrong with the way the system was before.
DP: Why do you think the system was changed?
Peters: I think it had to do with money and some of the smaller schools in the western part of the state were feeling they weren't getting a fair shot at state championships. When they did the voting, there are 314 public schools, and in AAA (largest schools) 95 percent of them voted against this and there are 90-something AAA schools, so we're always going to get outvoted.
Barner: Single A, we knew, was all for it. The Bay Rivers voted against it, and until they took the vote we didn't know which way the vote was going. Then it wasn't even close.
Peters: We in Triple-A brought up at one point to let's delay it, not rush it, and get away from the emergency legislation and let people digest what's going on.
Barner: If you remember they tried to do this eight years ago, and the reason that it did not pass is that nobody wanted to break up their district. So what they did (this time) is tell us you don't have to break up your districts, but they know darn well that's going to happen.
DP: Along that line. Do you feel that the VHSL could've done this realignment, kept the districts intact without conferences, and found a way to seed and bracket people into the regionals?
Peters: They could've done it without the conferences, because they're doing it for football (in Groups 1-4, where seeding is mostly done on the regional level) right now. They have six classifications set up right now, and they've could've done it for every other sport.
Barner: Surely some guy who runs those (VHSL) computers could've come up with something where you put the scores in the next day and (seeding or bracketing) points (for regional play) are (calculated) in there.
DP: So how did this get passed?
All: Emergency legislation. (The executive committee voted 23-3 in favor of the reorganization.)
The executive committee has 33 members, including includes principals, superintendents, one private citizen, two General Assembly members and a representative of the state department of education and the Virginia School Boards Association).
DP: Which means it didn't go through membership?
Peters: It did come up before the general membership in October. It did do that. But by that time everybody was so confused.
Price: And it took 66 percent to overturn.
In the October vote, only 37 percent voted to overturn it.
Barner: Triple-A wanted to overturn it. Single-A did not. It came down to Double-A. We went into the meeting figuring it would be close, but it wasn't. The Bay Rivers District voted like Triple-A did, and a couple others like Powhatan, Courtland, Chancellor, James Monroe, voted (with us).
Bennett: But the Roanoke area and the western part of the state, the Double-As, offset (that).
Peters: Almost 70 percent of the student body is in Triple-A schools. We get one vote. There's a school that has 130 students in it. They get one vote just like West Springfield in Northern Virginia, which has 3,600 students.
The smallest VHSL school, with 67 students, is Highland. The largest is T.C. Williams with 2,906.
Barner: One of the things that has really changed in the last seven years, everything once upon a time in meetings was a paddle vote. You'd get these paddles and you'd hold them up. There are very, very, very few paddle votes anymore. What's happens is, the executive committee gets together and kind of dictates.
Peters: You have superintendents on the executive committee, and some of them are clueless when it comes to athletics. That's what they have athletic people for.
Barner: And if you're (VHSL executive director) Ken Tilley, you're going to that meeting and you'll give them all the reasons why it will work — fairness and size of play, all those things. And they say, yeah. Then they hand it to you — they already had a vote — and you don't have time to do anything. And it's over. It's done.
Why did the realignment pass?
DP: What do the Single-A people like about it?
Barner: It was about their travel.
Peters: Plus, they get more of a chance to get a state championship. Their smaller schools can have a state championship.
Bennett: They sold it because they piloted it in football. And obviously in Single-A football, if you pilot it that way, it generates revenue. Now, all of a sudden, Single-A sees revenue, which they don't see very much of. So that kind of sold that whole group.
Barner: Nobody had time to think. The executive committee did it, they voted, they brought it to us. You had a 20-minute time to debate it and vote. They wanted to fix travel up for teams in the western part of the state. Now, they've messed it up for the majority.
Peters: The superintendent from the Eastern Region is from Chesapeake city schools. He represented the Eastern Region for Triple-A schools and he would go up there and vote no. These other superintendents from other parts of the state … Ken Tilley sold them, so we're gonna vote for it.
Peters: Newport News Hampton, we could have three state champions in football. York County could have, what two state champions in football? That sold a lot of these other school districts. We can have state championships with this new format without thinking what "will it cost me?" ….
Future of PD and BRD
DP: Realistically, when conference tournaments start, how long do you see the Peninsula and Bay Rivers districts lasting?
Barner: I see this cycle and next (four years).
Peters: I'd say in five years the (Peninsula) district's going to be gone.
Martin: I think two. Your coaches are already wondering why are we (playing in the district). It means nothing. It has nothing to do with postseason. Why can't I just open my schedule?
Bennett: I have a problem with that and I've fought in our district and will continue until I go down dying, because, if that happens, some schools are going to go out of business. Therefore you're going to lose members in the Virginia High School League.
DP: This year, are you still going to recognize a Peninsula District and Bay Rivers District champion?
Barner: Just regular season (in the Bay Rivers District).
Peters: We're not (in the Peninsula District).
DP: Will you select all-district teams?
Peters: We are not selecting an all-district teams (Peninsula District).
Bennett: There are no more all-district teams (Bay Rivers District).
Dwayne Peters mentioned that there will be all-conference teams. He immediately pointed out the absurdity of this in a six-team conference (Conference 17) in which there are three Peninsula District and three Southeastern District schools, none of which are scheduled to play one another in football.
Price: In football, why aren't we doing all-district still? That's who we see. In the conference (Conference 2) we're not going to see Oscar Smith, Grassfield and Western Branch, and they're not going to see us.
Barner: All those things are why we'll lose the districts and we'll all lose. It's going to cost us more to travel, cost us more in time of our jobs and the principals' jobs. It's going to take in less money.
DP: Going through the process, how much culture shock has it been meeting up with other districts and regions?
Peters: In our region you have the Bay Rivers District, the Peninsula District and (Richmond area) Central Region. You have three different areas that do things three different ways. Try getting everybody on the same page. We all have to compromise, but sometimes that's harder than it sounds.
Martin: (Among the) logistic issues we have to deal with in the City of Hampton, we've always been able leave whenever we schedule (the teams) do that. In Chesapeake, they have two options: You can leave at a half a day or you can leave at 4 o'clock.
So if you have to leave for a 4:30 baseball game, they have to take a half day off, maybe leave at 12:30 and sit in my auditorium for two hours. Then you have a late storm and then you come back home.
Peters: We're used to playing field hockey games at 4 o'clock. Because of the Suffolk schools we're not starting games until 5:30.
Before, when I played field hockey at Kecoughtan, I was taking JV and varsity on one bus. Now when I play Kings Fork (in Suffolk), I'm going there on one bus and their JV's coming to me.
Barner: You're doubling your buses. Here again you're going to take in less money and the kids are going to be hurt. How much time are kids going to miss class? Park View-South Hill could play a volleyball game at Poquoson on a Tuesday and at York on a Thursday night and not get home until 1:30 in the morning. Kids go to school one day and the next day they have to do it again.
DP: It seems like this all happened so fast. Why, and what would it have done if you could have gotten another year to organize this?
Peters: We asked for more time at the VHSL meetings last October. Our regional chairman got up and said, "Give us time to work on it." And they said, basically, no, you have until June 30.
Martin: We didn't know what questions we would have. A lot of the questions we have now we've found out as we go along, like sharing the same facilities.
DP: You could build a new rivalry, then in two years, it's gone.
The Virginia High School League will realign schools every two years depending on their enrollment.
Peters: I could build a rivalry with Nansemond River in sports because they're in our conference. In two years, that's gone.
Bennett: In two years, they'll look at the ADM (average daily membership) numbers and poof …
DP: Seven conferences (Peninsula and Bay Rivers districts) will be playing their tournaments (at the same time). What will that do to attendance and, for that matter, media coverage?
Barner: Our Bruton (boys basketball tournament) game took in $1,800. That's a good night for a (Group AA) school. You play Colonial Heights and you're not going to get $1,000. And you've got the travel fee you're going to pay.
Martin: It's a regular-season economic issue, too. Unless we make ourselves play each other (twice in basketball) — Hampton, Phoebus, Bethel, Kecoughtan — those are big money makers (for Hampton City Schools), which help fund next year's athletic programs. If we lose that, the school system is losing that money coming in.
Barner: The bottom line is that I think every school's going to lose money and every school is going to be doing more work and putting out more money for travel. (Peninsula District schools) playing rivalry games only once is going to be a huge (revenue) loss for you.
Bennett: You (have to) take us three and a half hours to Park View-South Hill and it's another haul, two and a half hours to Colonial Heights in our Conference (25).
Barner: Another big problem I have with this is the class time kids are going to miss in some of these sports. Not necessarily in football. But these other sports, If Southampton has to go to Loudoun County (for a regional game), they won't get back until 2 in the morning. I don't know what they're thinking.
DP: The perfect example (of lengthy travel) around here is Bruton. They're with Nandua, Arcadia, King Williams, Windsor and Maggie Walker.
Barner: Maggie Walker has to go all the way to Nandua. Picture that!
According to Mapquest, that's a 160-mile drive that will would take three hours.
Barner: We've been decent in Division 3 football. But if we have to go to Loudoun County to play a regional game, people in Williamsburg aren't going. I'm telling you right now. They won't go. And I can't see Loudoun County people coming down to Wanner Stadium, either. So the regional budgets aren't going to be as lucrative as they used to be. Then what are you going to do?
Price: I live in Williamsburg and people up there, my kids go to Jamestown, they're like, we gotta play Phoebus, we're not going down to Phoebus to watch a game.
Bennett: That's the other reason. I said, is it best for the kids? We never got time to talk about the culture shock between difference cultures we work in because we all know our schools are a culture. That's why we fought for the district. Y'all's culture in the district is sort of the same in your district. That's what makes it nice. Everybody understands. Now we're gonna go to different places and the culture's gonna be different.
DP: It's hard to not see that the football playoffs have been watered down. Now, there will be 3-7 teams in the playoffs. And you'll have first-round games that will be something like 70-0.
There will be 32 teams in each group in the playoffs, or 192 of the 315 VHSL members, or 61 percent.
Martin: That's a huge waste of money, to send a team (on the road) that's going to get crushed.
Barner: When your transportation guy sees these budgets and tells the superintendent, and then the finance guy says, 'We're not bringing in the money we used to be bringing in for the big football games,' and they all get together, it could be down the road that the superintendents say, 'Oh, no. Time out.' That could happen.
Peters: When I first started seven years ago, our transportation athletic budget was close to $500,000. Now it's down to like $260,000. And that's between five high schools, now. So they've cut us back big time. And now we have to travel further and bring in less money.
DP: You mentioned early that one of the reasons why the VHSL did this was money. Where's the money going to be made and who will get it?
Peters: The state semifinals and finals, the VHSL gets the money. Our 4A South championship game is a state semifinal game. The region does not get that money like it is today. Now, the 4A semifinal game — it could be Lake Taylor and Phoebus or whatever it may be — that money goes to the Virginia High School League.
DP: Now In basketball, two teams go from each conference? How do you decide that?
The schools in the four districts in the old Eastern Region are playing district teams not in their conference once, and all their conference opponents twice each. The Bay Rivers District schools are still playing each other twice during the regular season.
Peters: We're doing a conference schedule, then we're going a conference tournament. … And the (semifinal) winners go on to the regional tournament.
Our conference went with playing a conference schedule only for seeding purposes in the tournament. Say Heritage baseball went 9-0 in conference play. That does not get me into the regional tournament. I can go into the conference tournament and get beat the first round, and I'm done. Eventually I think our conference will go to a conference schedule like we do now with the winner going to the regional.
Price: You win 22 straight games, then your best player is hurt and you lose, you're done. I can see our conference maybe next year, the regular-season winner going on to the regional.
Bennett: Then it will be interesting because who trumps, the district or the conference? If our (Bay Rivers) district says you have to play our 20-game schedule, it's going to be hard for them to do that [play a conference schedule] … Who trumps?
Peters: To get to the playoffs you have to have a conference schedule for seeding purposes because of the difference levels.
DP (to Barner and Bennett): You don't have a conference schedule?
Bennett: We have a non-football power rating formula for all sports.
DP: What about other playoffs?
Peters: Before, the Eastern Region, we used Scope (in basketball). Now, you have (five) conferences that all want to get Scope for their conference (tournament) games. But Scope only has so much time and space.
Martin: In field hockey, with Conferences 2, 10 and 18, I'm in charge for 2, (Denbigh's Bryan) Weaver is in charge for 18, and Gloucester is in charge for 10. And all three of us are looking at CNU. How do you get three tournaments in one week? Those are some of the logistical things when this got pushed on us.
More on logistics
Bennett: If we go to conference, it will make scheduling very difficult. For us, it has been relatively easy. We have 20 games, pick up a couple of games. ….. travel-wise how you choose to or competitive-wise, how you choose to. Now we won't have that luxury.
Peters: That one division with Hampton, they aren't doing a JV schedule (when Peninsula teams play Chesapeake teams) so they are struggling for JV games. Our district says JVs cannot play in any tournament. That's a district policy. Now they have to fill their schedule.
Conference 10 includes Gloucester, Hampton, Menchville, Warwick and the Chesapeake schools of Great Bridge, Hickory and Indian River. All other area conferences are playing JV games.
Bennett: If they have nine JV basketball games and that kid has to choose between playing on his AAU team or that JV basketball team, where do you think he's going to play? 'I can go away 22 weekends and play here, here and here, and not even worry about the high school any more.'
Peters: That's why the Virginia High School League went to the year-round practicing now because a lot of the coaches were complaining that AAU was taking their kids because we can't practice, they're teaching them wrong and we don't like this and this. The Virginia High School League went to year-round practice rule to eliminate that.
Future of realignment
DP: Is there a possibility in two years Virginia High School League membership will say "Wait a minute?"
Martin: Secession! (laughter).
Peters: Our (Eastern) region talked about pulling away from the VHSL. I was involved in a conference call with the Northern Region about us pulling away.
Barner: It would take a number of superintendents in the state to go to the state department and say, we are not doing this. We are losing money. Our kids are losing tremendous amounts of class time.
Bennett: I don't think everybody has time to ask themselves the one reason we would do this: Is this best for the kids? We didn't have time to ask ourselves that over and over. The one reason we have this occupation, and we couldn't make that decision.
DP: Can you see the VHSL basically not existing in a few years?
Barner: It can happen. When these transportation budgets go up and the money they take in goes down, the amount of time kids are missing school, parents complaining "Hey, my kid doesn't get home until 2 o'clock in the morning," when all that starts hitting, who knows what is going to happen?
DP: So two years from now, can you guys call a vote and try to do away with it?
Peters: Someone from membership can bring it up in front of the executive committee, who then has to bring it in front of the general (body).
DP: And then it would have to be a two-thirds vote to overturn?
Barner: Success of this thing will come down to three things, money in, money out, class time missed by kids. That's what superintendents and principals will judge us on. The competition has always been there. We all have a lot of kids that are good academically. We also know in sports have a lot of kids that academically struggle. Sports helps them, obviously, but how is sports gonna help them now if they're missing classes? It could be outrageous how much class time is missed.
As you can see, a lot of question marks. More question marks than answers right now.